The Sino-American Split:  At Sea with a Broken Compass

The Sino-American Split:  At Sea with a Broken Compass
Remarks to the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr., (USFS, Ret.)
Senior Fellow, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University
By video link from Bristol, Rhode Island, 10 September 2021

The United States and China are no longer on speaking terms.  Having put diplomacy aside, these two great powers are engaged in diatribe accompanied by military posturing and preparations for a war in which the only certain outcome is the devastation of Taiwan.  But the contest between America and China is not primarily military or ideological.  It is about relative national strength and performance.  China seems more focused on this reality than the United States.

The Cold War is long over.  America’s unipolar moment has passed, and the Pax Americana is no more.  With its demise, two changes in the American worldview have provided the geopolitical context for the descent of US-China (and US-Russia) relations into adversarial antagonism.  The first was the assertion by Washington securocrats that the world could be understood, and U.S. foreign policy organized, by reference to “great power rivalry.”  The second is the claim by think-tank liberal interventionists that an attack on democracy by predatory authoritarianism has become the central dynamic of history and world affairs.  The Biden administration has embraced both theses.  It presents them as firm convictions, not hypotheses.  Together, they have given birth to the new American objective of a 21st century “rules-bound order” crafted and led by the United States and its Cold War allies.  This has no prospect of gaining international traction.

The notion that “great power rivalry” is the core feature of international relations is best understood as a distillation of American militarism.  It is a fantasy of the military-industrial complex.  “Great power rivalry” is a concept that provides a rationale for unbounded defense spending by analogizing interactions among nations to those on a battlefield.  It reduces foreign policy to zero-sum games between great powers, while denying agency to middle-ranking and smaller powers in shaping the world order or determining their own destinies.  Positing “great power rivalry” as the central feature of world affairs is an expression of nostalgia for the global feudalism of the Cold War when lesser nations were necessarily caught between competing overlords and forced to defer to alien agendas.  Not surprisingly, this premise has not found much welcome abroad.

It is also now clear that “great power rivalry” is not the dialectic that will cure the entropy of post-Pax Americana global and regional disorder.  What is emerging is a world of multidimensional interactions between countries in which almost all are driven more by their desire for autonomy than for alignment with the United States or its appointed great power rivals.  Asked to choose a superpower as patron, middle-ranking and smaller powers almost invariably hedge and persist in pursuing their own interests as they see them.

Foreign policies based on wistful remembrance of past supremacy and the misperception of contemporary infirmities are doomed to fail.  They are hallucinations that preclude successful navigation of the world’s newly fluid geopolitics, frustrate those who adopt them, and vex those to whom they are applied.  They are not a basis on which to reaffirm U.S. global leadership.

As for the claim that democracy is under attack by “authoritarianism,” this is good politics but politically warped analysis.  It appeals to Americans for many reasons.   It appears to explain the deterioration of democratic norms in the United States as entirely the fault of foreigners and to thereby absolve Americans of any responsibility for the increasing decadence of their own political culture.  It embodies an unstated presupposition that democracy is the default political system of humankind, absent only when denied to a people by opponents who adhere to a putative ideology of “authoritarianism.”

But long before there were politicians prepared to risk displacement from power by other politicians with more support at the polls, there were societies led by warlords, kings, dictators, and other strongmen.  There still are.

Democracy is not celebrated for the wisdom of its decision-making.  It is revered as an antidote to social and political repression that, when tempered by the rule of law, enables levels of individual self-governance and orderly succession processes that no other system can match.  Democratic norms appear to require many generations to establish themselves in human societies.  The 20th and 21st centuries provide many examples of how quickly and thoroughly these norms can be discarded.

The world’s strongmen are almost all power-mad narcissists who have nothing in common other than the fear of being overthrown.  They are happy to receive foreign support but seek and find no market abroad for their personality cults or their countries’ idiosyncratic nationalisms.  Lofty talk notwithstanding, the United States has been just as willing as China, Russia, and other great powers to sell weapons and internal security equipment to authoritarian governments and has, in fact, outsold all others in such markets.

Inventing persistent malevolence for Russia and predatory ideological aspirations for China serves domestic U.S. political purposes.  It puts otherwise confusing international politics back into the sort of Manichean framework that animated World War II and the Cold War.  Americans used to criticize China for its well-documented indifference to whether other countries were or were not democratic and devoted to the rule of law.  Now, we have found it convenient to reverse course and attribute to China a values-based crusade equivalent to and opposed to our own.  But there is no evidence that Xi Jinping and the 92 million Communist Party members he leads are trying to erase democracy beyond China’s borders.  They are on the defensive against suspected homegrown and foreign efforts to discredit them, subvert their political economic achievements, and topple them from power.

The thesis that China and America are engaged in mortal contention over what political system Americans or others should live under does not survive even minimal scrutiny.  Democracy may be doing itself in here and there, but there is no league of foreign autocrats or “authoritarian ideology” seeking to obliterate it.  The operative contest between China and America is not between competing political ideals but between the two countries’ abilities to exercise wealth and power, maintain domestic tranquility, and inspire emulation by other states and peoples.  It is a contest that neither side will “win.”  Flinging politically convenient but erroneous theories at China will not change this.

Ironically, the United States has just fallen to number 25 on the Economist’s annual worldwide “Democracy Index,” and is now categorized as a “flawed” and possibly failing democracy.  This is disheartening.  It is understandable that Americans prefer blaming Russia and other foreign miscreants to examining the internal causes of our decadence.  But it is ironic that the Biden administration should choose this moment to “stand up for democracy” and proclaim the existence of a global struggle between democracy and “authoritarianism.”  Few abroad see things at all this way.

The American constitution assigned authority for policymaking almost entirely to the people’s representatives in Congress, but the U.S. president and the electorate have largely given up on the legislative branch.  The president increasingly rules by decree[1] and has acquired greater power than any king to make war on other nations[2] and slaughter presumed enemies abroad.

The erosion of constitutional democracy in the United States appears to be the result of a tragic combination of many factors, including

  • The outrageous venality, chicanery, and effrontery of contemporary American politics.
  • The recent emergence of a largely hereditary American plutocracy and educated elite.
  • The disillusionment of those farthest down with the American dream, as equality of opportunity and social mobility visibly disappear from American society.
  • Elite condescension and indifference to the views of the uneducated and other members of the new and old American “underclasses.”
  • The rise of social and niche media oligopolies with business plans dependent upon the creation and maintenance of communities of shared preconceptions.
  • The nurture by such media of social microcosms defined by shared delusions based on common grievances, “alternative facts,” the embrace of conspiracy theories, and other politically relevant affinities.
  • The organization through social media of increasingly violent protests by disgruntled white nationalists, black victims of social and police prejudice, those recently demoted from the middle class, and other marginalized Americans.
  • The exploitation of expert systems to entrench political privilege through “gerrymandering” and artificial intelligence and “big data” that manipulate the electorate.
  • Elite insistence on pretentious standards of political correctness on issues that the more traditional and less fortunate find both intolerant and morally offensive.
  • Reactions to political correctness and protests by those devoted to the vanishing status quo.

A few of these factors clearly make the United States more vulnerable to foreign intervention in its internal affairs than before, but they are, without exception, domestic, not foreign, in origin.  They can only be fixed by Americans.  Scapegoating Russia or China won’t do a thing to remedy them.

The world is rightly disbelieving of the sudden American argument that the dialectic driving history is the contradiction between democracy and autocracy.  Those societies proudest of their democratic traditions are notably committed to the tolerance of political diversity both at home and abroad.  None sees the overthrow of undemocratic regimes as an existential imperative or believes in the divine right of democracies to proclaim, impose, and enforce their preferred dispensations as a replacement for international law and consensus.

To much of the world, the gathering of the “G7” in Cornwall this June and its talk of the sanctity of an ill-defined “rules-bound order” looked like the convening of a club of superannuated imperialists determined to regain the dominant role in rulemaking they lost along with their empires. The members of the G7 account for 11 percent of the world population, 30 percent of its GDP at purchasing power parity, and 62 percent of its accumulated wealth.  The G7 made no case for its members’ renewed stewardship of global order but appeared to claim it as a sort of droit du seigneur.  But “non-Western” – meaning non-Euro-Atlantic – societies constitute a very large global majority and are no longer prepared to be treated as vassals.  As they rise from poverty, almost all are focused on escape from the trauma of past humiliation by Western imperialism and colonialism

Post-colonial stress disorder is today a major driver of foreign policy in every region touched by imperialism, including Eastern and Central Europe, where the humiliation was done by the Russian-dominated Soviet Union.  It plays an outsized role in Hindu nationalism and Great Han chauvinism.  Post-colonial hangover is a major explanation for phenomena like the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and the Arab uprisings of 2011.

European colonialism has locked Africa into a love-hate relationship with its colonizers that is now coming home to roost through illegal migration.  Latin America continues to resent ongoing interventions by “the Colossus of the North” in places like Bolivia, Cuba, and Venezuela, even as many from the region look north for a better life.  Southeast Asians, too, bear the scars of having been subjugated by European, American, and Japanese imperialism.  Most of the world outside the United States and Europe sees the ongoing Israeli ethnic cleansing and settlement activity in Palestine as the last gasp of racist colonialism.   Islamists identify “the West” with it and see it as justification for reprisal through terrorism.

The operative division in global politics is manifestly not that between democracy and autocracy but that between former colonizers and the colonized.  This is joined as a driving force by the differences between those mainly Western nations who long ago became wealthy through industrialization and those now striving to do the same.  The wealthy can protect their populations from phenomena like pandemics.  The less developed and poor are left to suffer and die.

The same is true of climate change.  The earliest countries to industrialize were able to ignore pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.  They now prefer not to allow those embarking on development to do the same.  Demands from poor countries that they be compensated for two centuries of accumulated degradation of the climate by their former colonial masters fall on deaf ears.  The inability of developing countries to forestall or remediate the catastrophic impact of rising temperatures and seas, flooding and drought, or famine and pestilence promises to create an unbearable future for their inhabitants.  The result will be widening chaos.

For all these reasons, to most of the world the arguments that the Biden administration is now making for a reformulated “rules-bound order” ring hollow.  Its appeals to other nations for deference to great power rivalry and combat with imaginary authoritarian predators have little appeal.  To compete with China or other rising and resurgent powers in shaping the world of the future, America needs to make a case that is relevant to current realities.  At present, China seems better aligned with these realities than the United States.

This is truly unfortunate.  The world has many problems that cannot be addressed without leadership by its greatest powers, and, as America shirks the burdens of leadership, China remains focused on its own reconstitution, rejuvenation, technological advancement, and self-interested economic outreach.  Beijing shows little willingness to lead other nations and has so far demonstrated no competence to do so.  America doesn’t want China to replace its global leadership.  Neither, for the most part, does the world.  But, without at least some degree of accommodation and cooperation with China by the United States and between China, India, Japan, and other great powers, neither the United States nor China will be able to mount an effective response to the planetwide challenges now facing humanity.

China now seems overconfident, while the United States is mired in self-doubt.  If, as the Book of Proverbs puts it, “pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall,” China looks like it’s ripe for one or the other.  Meanwhile, social and niche media in the United States have sliced, diced, and sorted Americans into disillusioned and mutually distrustful sub-communities that harbor incompatible visions of the American past and future and are no longer even on speaking terms with each other.  Lacking unity, America seems politically splintered, scatterbrained, and unable to agree on much of anything except that China must be opposed.

Neither China nor America currently has much tolerance for ambiguity, nuance, or deviance from popular presuppositions or prejudices.  Both have administrations that are obsessed with protecting leaders from criticism and that react badly to foreign censure or to homegrown unconventional ideas.  Both are therefore prone to persist in error long after they should have been identified and corrected it.

A combination of solipsism and mutual disdain assures that Beijing and Washington no longer listen to each other.  Both Chinese and American citizens now receive almost all information through digital filters in the form of media-certified and targeted judgments designed to reinforce established narratives.  Neither citizenry is presented with many facts to contradict such judgments.  Each finds it difficult to draw its own conclusions about trends and events touching national interests.

In China, the information flow is government-controlled, anodyne but upbeat about domestic matters, self-righteously nationalistic about foreign affairs, and calculated to unify the people politically.  In America, it is corporate controlled, discordant, bigoted about both domestic and foreign affairs, and tailored to facilitate the marketing of political opinions as well as goods and services.  Both systems treat objectivity as quaint and potentially subversive and indulge in the propagation of claptrap, but the “mediaverse” in America has a much higher percentage of stuff that experts aptly describe with the technical term, “weird shit.”

In large measure to placate nationalistic domestic audiences, both China and America appear to have decided to emulate the foreign policy of the Roman emperor, Caligula.  His motto was ODERINT DUM METUANT – “let them hate us, as long as they fear us.”  This was former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s idea of diplomacy.  It appears to be that of today’s China as well.  So much for America “making friends and influencing people” or China presenting itself as “credible, lovable, and respectable!”

China’s ruling Communist Party seems now to imagine that the brilliance of its ideology is responsible for China’s astonishing economic and technological success.  But its major contributions were to set aside its ideology, open the Chinese market to competition from foreign companies and their technologies, replace central planning with market economics and industrial policies, get out of the way of entrepreneurs, localities, and state-owned enterprises, curtail wasteful defense expenditures, and encourage the productive reinvestment of Chinese household savings.  By stepping aside from micromanagement of the economy, the Party liberated it.  The Chinese people then launched themselves into a level of dog-eat-dog economic competition not seen since 19th century America.  This spurred rapid productivity growth and deflated prices while enriching the lives of ordinary Chinese and enabling them to become the producers of one-third of the world’s manufactures.

These were truly amazing achievements.  But they were stimulated by judicious withdrawals of state control, rather than assertions of it.  Now the controls seem to be going back on.  This raises the possibility that, as has happened before in China’s history, rising prosperity could fall victim to the arrogance and corruption of a domineering state bureaucracy.  If this happens, who will have the courage to tell the masters of the Chinese political universe that the reimposition of the nanny state risks triggering rather than precluding unrest [乱] and reversing China’s economic advance by blighting the aspirations for self-fulfillment of its enormous and growing middle class?

China leapt into prosperity by embracing ideologically unpalatable realities.  Now many see Beijing appearing to reverse verdicts on ideological agendas previously refuted by experience.  Are we back to 政治挂帅 — politics in command?  What became of 实事求是 –“seek truth from facts” or 以实践为真理的唯一标准 – “practice is the sole criterion of truth”?  Doesn’t China need such principles along with further 改革开放 – “reform and opening” – to advance to the next stage of wealth and prestige?

Of course, China now has a highly competitive, self-sustaining economy.  China’s development may slow, but it is most likely to continue long enough for a new generation less obsessed with the need for regimentation to rediscover the open-mindedness that catalyzed China’s return to wealth and power.

Sadly, whether China falters or not, the United States is presently in remarkably poor condition to compete with it.  The infirmities of contemporary American democracy and its catastrophic inability to mobilize an effective response to the pandemic are telling.  But the United States is now overmatched by China or about to be in just about every realm relevant to competition other than the military (and that too is increasingly uncertain).

  • Most sectors of the Chinese economy are served by multiple competitive enterprises whereas in the U.S. economy the norm is now oligopoly, monopoly, or monopsony.
  • In China, companies still invest their profits in expanded industrial capacity. In the United States, where financialized, shareholder capitalism now dominates, profits increasingly flow into stock buybacks, mergers, and acquisitions.
  • China already accounts for over 30 percent of global industrial production vs. America’s slightly more than 16 percent.
  • China is the world’s largest trading nation and the top economic partner of three-fourths of the world’s countries.
  • China now vies with the United States as the largest recipient of foreign direct investment.
  • China has about 2.5 times the savings and investment capacity of the United States and its government has surplus capital to export. America has become dependent on foreign purchases of around 40 percent of its debt just to run existing government operations, let alone launch new programs.
  • China is rapidly rising in the ranks of the world’s innovators while the United States, though still formidable, is slowly declining.
  • Students in China’s schools rank 1st in the world in math and science, while American students rank 37th and 18th
  • There are now eight times as many scientists, technicians, engineers, and mathematicians in China as there are in the United States and if nothing changes, at the end of this decade, there will be fifteen times as many.
  • China has provided one-third of the total global growth in research and development expenditures in this century vs. America’s one-fifth. China and the U.S. each account for about one-fourth of worldwide spending on R&D, but China passed the U.S. in 2019 and now spends much more on basic research than the United States, where most R&D is business-funded incremental product development.
  • In China, government spending reflects strategic calculation; in America it reflects the vector of vested interests’ lobbying of Congress.
  • Chinese transportation and communications infrastructure is the world’s newest and most efficient, while deferred maintenance on America’s roads, bridges, railroads, and air and sea ports is over $2.5 trillion. (The Congress is now crowing over having just allocated about $110 billion annually over five years to additional funding for infrastructure – far, far short of what is required.)
  • China now allocates less than 2 percent of its GDP to the military vs. America’s 3.4 – 5.25 percent. (If China were a NATO member, the United States would be berating it for spending much too little on defense.)  China can surge defense expenditures and production whereas the United States cannot.

The greatest comparative advantage of the United States has come to be its professional and highly lethal military.  This makes it politically convenient for Americans to portray the contest the United States has launched with China in military terms.  China is showing that it can match and raise anything the United States does.  But military posturing is an exercise in futility.   Sino-American war over the much-misunderstood Taiwan issue[3] – the most probable casus belli – would leave Taiwan in ruins and could leave both the Chinese and American homelands devastated.  Both would lose from any war if they did not destroy each other outright.  They would be mad to go to war with each other.  We must do what we can to ensure that they do not.

The Sino-American contest is not about which side can out-posture or out-arm the other militarily.  It is about the underlying sources of national strength and performance.  These do not currently favor the United States.

American competitiveness vis-à-vis China will not be enhanced by more American defense spending or the pivoting of U.S. armed forces to East Asia.  Meeting the challenge will require a level of investment in the future of the United States that is unimaginable without an end to the American hubris, denial, and complacency that have gutted fiscal responsibility, diverted wealth to the plutocracy, attracted the best and brightest to financial rather than real engineering, suffocated competitive markets, atrophied industry, institutionalized inefficiency and rake-offs in sectors like education and health, squeezed the middle class, and decimated the capacity of the government to respond to crises.  Nothing less will do.

And that is why it distresses me as an American to say that, while China will not gain from the Sino-American split, the United States seems likely to lose from it.













[1] “Executive Orders,” which are arguably implied but not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, in practice now have the force of law.

[2] Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the U.S. Constitution assigns to Congress the exclusive power to authorize war.  The modern American presidency has long since usurped this power.

[3] The international and domestic U.S. media persist in attributing views about Taiwan to China that resonate with Western audiences but that no Chinese has ever expressed or would.  China does not see Taiwan as “a renegade province” or “a province in rebellion.”  It sees Taiwan as the American-backed bastion of the losing, anticommunist side in the Chinese civil war that U.S. intervention suspended but did not end.